Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Most Civilized Festival on Earth

If going to a terribly civilized festival sounds boring to you, you've clearly never been to Hillside Festival, in Guelph, Ontario.  Running for 28 years now, Hillside is a top-shelf indie music festival that takes place on a small island in a small lake in a small conservation area, outside of a small city.  The bands are small-time for the most part, the food and drink vendors are small businesses, and the overall ecological footprint left by this festival is very small indeed.  It's amazing that it packs such a huge punch in terms of music, food, fun, and civility.  I'll try to explain what I mean.

Dan Mangan playing on the Main Stage

The bands that play are from across Canada.  This year was my first time going, but Drew has been going for years.  We were both really pumped to see Mother Mother, from Vancouver, play.  Drew had seen them four years earlier, and that was how he first got into their music.  I was really excited to see Dan Mangan, also from Vancouver, who is starting to become a bigger deal lately.  We watched both of these bands play their own sets on the main stage (which has a living roof - grasses and other plants) and also saw them jam together on a smaller stage in a more lighthearted and intimate way.  These United States played awesome rock and roll, Emmanuel Jal performed hip-hop, and a bunch of other things were going on that we didn't even get to see because it all happens at once.  The Sheepdogs played an acoustic gig and then also on one of the stages, Hollerado jammed with a couple of other bands and then played on stage, and Adverteyes (who Drew wanted to see but we opted to go for a swim instead) played as well.  This was all on Saturday afternoon, and it's a three-day festival.  There were others on Saturday too, these are just some of the names popping into my mind.  So you get the idea - you may not have heard of all of these bands, but you're starting to hear about some of them, and many groups seem to keep coming back to Hillside to play once they've made it big.

The living roof of the main band-stand

Ok, these are grilled sharp cheddar cheese
sandwiches, with avocado, tomato and greens,
on cinnamon raisin bread.  If you didn't drool
just now, something's the matter with you.
Also pictured, the reuseable plates, and forks,
and delicious BBQ'd corn.  And gatorade.
It was hot.
The over-arching ethos of Hillside, from what I could gather, was anti-capitalism in the nicest of ways.  It's an independent music festival, so even the bands with record deals are more likely to be signed to Arts and Crafts than EMI, and many of them are starting out and may even be unsigned.  Likewise, none of the food vendors are franchised.  It's all small - and from what I gathered - local businesses that get stalls in a covered structure and sell really, really excellent food.  AND, not only is the food excellent, but it's cheap!  Or at least very reasonably priced.  The same is true for beer and wine - local breweries (in this case I saw Flying Monkeys and Stonehammer, and perhaps also a third but I can't remember).  No Molson or Anhauser-Busch here!  All the food and drinks were served in re-useable containers also - the plates were picnic plates - tough, washable plastic - as were the bowls, and there was actual silverware (as well as some plastic utensils that were re-used), and for $3 one could purchase a cup that they could use to get beer and wine, and free water from a huge water tanker.  It was such a contrast to other large events, where you get hosed by everyone for eating or drinking.

The Big Music Fest in Bobcaygeon was similar in terms of the food and drink vendors, but it's clear to me that 28 years of experience have taught the organisers of Hillside a thing or two that Big Music Fest could have used.

These lovely little guys are the Hillside cups - made out of
corn-based plastic.  Corn!  What won't they think of
doing with that stuff next.

The last thing I'll talk about, and the thing that made a big impression on me and made me really feel like Hillside was the most civilized festival I had ever been to, was the emphasis they put on keeping the environmental impact of the festival small.  This meant a number of things happened, some that I've touched on like the living roof on the band shelter, the water tanker (instead of bottled water), and all the re-useable flatware and cups.  Another big contributor was the waste management.  There were tents set up with eight buckets of different colours with labels (and sometimes children to explain what to do if you were confused), and plates went into one bucket, garbage went into another, recycling into a third, compost into a fourth, cutlery into a small fifth, and so on.  I have no idea how often these buckets were changed, but there was NEVER A SINGLE TIME that they were overflowing onto the ground with human refuse.  That is the most disgusting part of any parade or festival in my view; the swirling mounds of garbage and recyclables all mixed together in huge unruly heaps.  None of that at Hillside.  Everything was so clean, volunteers actually peopled a military-style dishwashing hut, complete with huge drying racks, where all the plates were cleaned to be re-used.

The volunteers deserve huge mad props from me and everyone else, for being so totally on the ball for three days.  I bet that they have the time of their life, camping and bonding over the responsibility, work, long hours, and little sleep, just like camp counsellors.  At the same time, there was nothing awesome about the dish pit at Hillside, because nothing is ever awesome about a dish pit anywhere, and the volunteers working on every detail are what make the entire festival possible.

The overall effect of the philosophy and focus on environmental measures was something totally amazing and unexpected:  I left the festival feeling more human than I did when I walked in.

The view over Guelph Lake, of storm clouds, from the Lake Stage
I can't wait to go to Hillside next year.  I heard amazing music, I swam in the lake, I ate incredibly good food, I composted, I re-used, I danced, I sat on the grass, I talked.  Everyone did.  We all did these things together, and it was wild and calm and peaceful and energetic, and perfect.  It was perfect.

My keepsake -
Sweet Thing t-shirt

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